|Friday, January 4
Updated: January 6, 10:10 PM ET
Gastineau ready to put his (track) record behind him
By Greg Garber
Back when he was making $65,000 a week, when Mark Gastineau says he thought he was God, the Jets' muscular defensive end never encountered an interview he wouldn't tackle. Back in the mid-1980s, when he was racking up sacks -- he had a staggering 100.5 in his first 100 career starts -- Gastineau never, ever missed an opportunity to drop clever sound bytes on the sporting populace.
Maybe it's all the baggage he bears: the scars of two failed marriages, two children he never got to know, a history of violence toward women, an aborted career in football and a series of missteps that, taken together, constitute an amazing disregard for the law and the people around him. More likely it is the humility and contrition he discovered after 11 months in Riker's Island prison, a stretch that ended in mid-July.
After Strahan torched the Philadelphia Eagles for 3.5 sacks last Sunday, he raised his total to 21.5 and pulled within a scant half-sack of Gastineau's 17-year-old standard. For Gastineau, it represented an opportunity of sorts, a second chance to make a good first impression.
Strahan's achievement has created the platform for another 15 minutes of fame for the athlete who once graced the pages of Playgirl magazine, the cover of People Magazine and was a regular on the talk-show circuit with girlfriend Brigitte Nielsen, the blonde, statuesque actress.
And yet when Frank Ramos, the Jets' vice president of communications, called Gastineau this week with a handful of interview requests, Gastineau politely thanked him for the opportunity and declined.
"All that stuff," Gastineau said recently, "all that stuff isn't what it's about. It might have been about that, but now it's not about that."
Gastineau once reveled in the chaos and catharsis of the Big Apple, but has made a dramatic change in his life. Just last week he moved in with his sister and her husband, Kelli and Steve Rausch, in a suburb north of Phoenix. He is expected to begin work soon under Steve, a vice president for a chain of health clubs.
Those close to him hope it is more than a symbolic break with the past. He has gone back to his roots, back to his family in an effort to rediscover who Mark Gastineau really is, and the man he might be in the future. "So when you know that someone is trying to better themselves, you want them to give him every chance that you can," Steve Rausch said.
According to those around him, Gastineau is making an honest effort to change his approach. At 45, he remains uncomfortably eager to please people, but now seems to weigh his options and actually consider the consequences. Not only has he passed on a number of recent interview requests, but he turned down the NFL Tough Man competition. He thought it might make him look ridiculous.
Of course, he has his doubts.
"People are going to say, 'Yeah, he's just doing this for this and that,' " said Gastineau, who seems to understand human nature better than his own. "It's the real deal for me, OK?
"God gave Mark Gastineau his son Jesus. And you know what? He died on the cross and I'm forgiven for everything. I could not go on if it wasn't for that. I'm so thankful for Jesus Christ in my life, that he is my savior and he saved my life, because of the fact that I would beat myself up -- I'd beat myself up every day."
In a wide-ranging interview that consumed more than 90 minutes, Gastineau discussed his life with varying degrees of enthusiasm -- and detail. Characteristically, he dropped a few bombs along the way.
When he left the NFL abruptly after the first seven games of the 1988 season -- he was actually leading the AFC with seven sacks -- Gastineau had said it was because he wanted to be with Nielsen, who was thought to be fighting ovarian cancer. Gastineau now says there were at least two other factors: boredom and anabolic steroids.
At the time, the NFL was only testing "informationally" for steroids, which means the performance-enhancing drugs didn't fall under the protocol of the league's formal substance abuse policy that called for penalties for the use of cocaine, marijuana and alcohol, among other things. Both the NFL and the Jets declined to confirm that Gastineau twice tested positive for steroid, but pointed out that steroids use wasn't punishable by suspension until 1989, a year after Gastineau called it a career.
Even Gastineau himself admitted that the Jets did not threaten him with a suspension. So why did he say that he felt a third positive test would somehow seep into the public domain and embarrass him?
Marty Lyons, a fellow member of the New York Sack Exchange and now a broadcaster, thinks he knows the answer.
"If you're going down, you try to make yourself look better," Lyons said Thursday at the Jets training complex in Hempstead, N.Y. " 'This is a humble way for me not to be embarrassed, and not to embarrass my teammates, so I'm just going to quit.' Well, I don't buy it and I don't accept it.
"If you tested twice and you test a third time, you pay the price. You don't walk out on 52 other players with the excuse that, what, 'My girlfriend has cancer. I have to be with her.' Life's not that easy."
Despite the force of his words, Lyons actually has a certain fondness for his old New York Sack Exchange teammate. They go back a long way. Lyons was the Jets' first-round draft choice in 1979 and Gastineau was the second-round pick. They were roommates as rookies and it was Lyons who introduced Gastineau to his first wife, Lisa.
Lyons, in many ways, has become a role model for Gastineau. He works as a broadcaster and also is a motivational speaker for corporations. After being touched by tragedy, he has worked with terminally ill children for nearly two decades. In recent weeks he and Gastineau have had several long conversations.
"If you don't trust yourself, how can you ask somebody else to like you?" Lyons asked him. "I said, 'Mark, that's your problem: You've never liked yourself, never trusted yourself. And you always thought that it was the people from the outside looking in, that they rejected you.' I said, 'You rejected yourself.'
"I said, 'Mark, you're in the perfect opportunity now, because nobody thinks you can do it. Nobody believes you're going to do it. Every one of us, we're taking odds, how much longer can he go before he fails again?' I said, 'You can use that as a positive, but the only person who can choose that is you.' "
Kelli Rausch, his sister, defends him. She sees a different Mark Gastineau today. One who wants to right the wrongs of his past, not make excuses for what he has done.
"That's just people. They'll just have to see the change because he has changed," she says of those who still criticize her brother. "Everyone has a past. It's not always in the headline or on the TV. Everyone has a past."
To avoid incarceration, he was given the option of attending a Church-sponsored program for first-time offenders. That eventually led him to The Times Sqaure Church, where, he said, he found religion.
This, Gastineau seems to have finally grasped, is the simple truth.
"Peace," he said. "That's what I want out of life. I want to be happy with all these new things happening in my life -- it's nothing but peace and happiness.
"It's a great beginning for me and I'm really excited about getting started."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com